SMI-S, the specification for interoperable storage management, is turning into a big victory for the organisation behind it - SNIA, and more specifically its Storage Management Initiative (SMI) group. Even companies which initially held off from taking part, most notably EMC, have acknowledged than SMI-S is the way to go - for discovery and provisioning at least.

"The vendors were dragged in kicking and screaming, but they realised that the days when people would invest huge amounts in storage management tools were over," says SNIA technology director Rick Bauer. "In a recent survey, 68 percent of SNIA members said they were going to start specifying conformance. End users are going to demand it, so sales will be won or lost on it."

Of course, interoperability was possible in the past, but it relied upon the companies concerned being willing to grant access to the APIs concerned. Supporting a broad range of third-party hardware was therefore a time-consuming process, and of course there was always the option for dog-in-the-manger vendors to refuse competitors' access, forcing them down the expensive route of reverse engineering.

However, the arrival for SMI-S has resulted in a wholesale move towards providing the hooks for interoperability within both software and hardware. Bauer says companies are finally recognising that they need to compete at a higher level than just connectivity.

300 conformant products
"There are close to 300 SMI-S conformant products now," he says. "The 1.03 spec was the one that really convinced some companies that it's going to be significant, and with version 1.1, we're seeing companies that just turned up to meetings now have one or two full-time SMI engineers per products. Interoperability is not just being tacked on, but being built in from the ground up.

"I think there was a thought that this would make everything generic, but we've seen people go conformant but continue to drive innovation. For example, as a software management client, instead of having to get an API swap from all the vendors - which takes time, lawyers and engineers - I'm going to use discovery in SMI-S."

Bauer says that in his CIO days - before joining SNIA, he ran IT for The Hill School - the number of different consoles and tools that his team needed to manage a single storage set-up frustrated him immensely.

"Everyone know the money is in management - you have logarithmic growth in storage capacity and logarithmic slopes in headcount. People are getting expensive and they're getting harder to find," he explains.

"We're not talking about interoperability in the data path, but we're going to see more storage managed by a single application. So if I've got heterogeneous gear I don't have to have specialists in each application - I can do more from a single console."

He adds though that while SMI-S is a huge leap forward from the storage administration point of view, there is still lots more to be done on the interoperability front.

"I think users want complete product interoperability now, and we're just talking about interoperability on the data path. We're a long way from plug and play."

XML is the lingua franca
How SMI-S works is that the vendors translate the specifications into XML code for their specific products. This then acts as a kind of universal API that any other SMI-S product can relate to.

Bauer says that while it took time, the development of SMI-S was relatively straightforward.

"Standards are like glaciers - they change everything but they're really slow," he jokes. "Engineers are to some extent able to drop their hats at the door and work together. The process is still in its youth, but there's a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm."

The next challenge for the SNIA technology centre, having supported the SMI-S development process, is to support the specification's usage and uptake, he adds.

"The software companies are taking advantage now," he says. "You would see an advantage for start-ups too, because it means they can talk to the big players without having to do API swaps."

He adds, "It will be interesting to see how companies craft their marketing messages to include certification - there's a logo available and so on.

"Now we're looking at how to demo how SMI-S is helping to build heterogeneous environments - we are building a storage solutions centre, using shipping equipment. Users are buying conformant hardware, but are they making full use of it yet? No."